SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Sabrina Vourvoulias
Born in Bangkok, Thailand the daughter of a Mexican-Guatemalan artist and an American businessman, Sabrina Vourvoulias grew up in Guatemala. She was 15 when she moved to the U.S., later studying filmmaking and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence. She’s worked as everything from an art gallery assistant to an opera house director then started a career in newspapers in New York and Pennsylvania. She’s currently Managing Editor of Philadelphia’s largest Spanish language newspaper, Al Dia, also a #sffwrtcht #latism regular on Twitter and a social media fan. In addition to news, her poetry has appeared in Dappled Things, Graham House Review, We’Moon, and another is forthcoming in Bull Spec. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres in the Fat Girl in a Strange Land and Crossed Genres Year Two anthologies and more are forthcoming in GUD and Strange Horizons. Her debut science fiction novel, Ink, is out from Crossed Genres, a futuristic tale about a U.S. where tattoos mark immigration status for population control. She lives in a charming, dilapidated old farmhouse outside Philadelphia with her husband and brilliant, cantankerous teen daughter. She can be found via her website/blog as well as on Twitter as @followthelede.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?
Sabrina Vourvoulias: I’ve always been a voracious reader. I started w fairy tales and mythology and was quickly drawn to literature with similar qualities. So, as a kid I read Tolkien and Bradbury; Homer and Miguel Angel Asturias; Arthurian legend and the Popol Vuh.
SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?
SV: Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler are simply brilliant. I love Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Ana Castillo, Elena Poniatowska, Borges, Marquez, Francisco Goldman, Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Uwem Akpan, Barbara Kingsolver, Charles de Lint, Peter Beagle, Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Nnedi Okorafor, Emma Bull, Barbara Krasnoff. I could go on, you know. But, really, any writing that leaps takes my breath away.
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
SV: My poem was published in fifth grade. I started writing creative non-fiction in high school and short stories in college. I was always, from day one, a kid who told tales.
SFFWRTCHT: Obviously you learned your craft in college studying creative writing. Did you study writing before that?
SV: At college, I studied mostly poetry. But I took a short story course with Allan Gurganus which made me fall in love with fiction.
SV: From the stories I was hearing from the undocumented immigrants I knew. Then I saw a tiny newspaper story in Spanish about an undocumented immigrant in New York who was dumped across the Connecticut border without any money, phone or ID, and a cog in the plot was born.
SFFWRTCHT: Which came first–plot or characters? Theme? World?
SV: Characters. Always characters first with me. The characters prompt action or inaction according to temperament.
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novel take you to write?
SV: Four or five years of active writing. But some ideas and characters were in my head from ten to twelve years ago, maybe even longer.
SFFWRTCHT: In Ink, biometric tattoos mark anyone with immigration history used for population control by zealot citizens and government. You use four POV characters over a ten year span, which creates an unusual structure. What made you choose that?
SV: Much of Ink is concerned w the failure, manipulation and reclamation of collective memory, so I had to have more than one POV.
SFFWRTCHT: We start with a journalist, Finn, who goes to investigate leads on government population control officials and winds up falling for his source. Then we follow his source and lover, Mari, who is employed at the popuation control office as she winds up in danger herself from zealots. Next, Finn’s brother-in-law, Del, an artist, who struggles with a move away from his beloved land when his wife gets a new job. Last, we have Abby, the teen daughter of an inkatorium manager where inks are interned over public health concerns. Mari is Guatemalan with memories of the genocides there. Did you base her character on your experiences, in part?
SV: I grew up there while the government was waging an undeclared war on its people. I lived through martial law, states of emergency, civil patrols. My father was kidnapped; a bus driver from school and two friends’ fathers were killed in front of my eyes. Another friend lived in a village that was later a massacre site during the genocide. I was gone by then. I don’t know whether she survived. It marks you, you know. You never forget it or grow out of its effects. In fact, it shapes who you are.
SFFWRTCHT: Your own life would make quite a story. Were any of your characters besides Mari inspired by people you know?
SV: None of them. Not even Mari really. Her circumstance, but not her character.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you think that writing helps you deal with your own past?
SV: I think memory is supremely important.
SV: Never. Tough stuff makes us who we are.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about the setting for Ink. A fictional small town in America is your setting. Why not use an existing location?
SV: A fictional small-to-mid-size city, Hastings, and a fictional rural town, Smithville. So Hastings has a bit of NYC, Philly and Syracuse in it. Smithville was inspired by a couple of Central New York towns. But they’re a fictional city and town because I wanted to take liberties. Lots of liberties.
SFFWRTCHT: Were the magical aspects of the story intended from the very beginning?
SV: There was always magic, but it did change. The mythic underpinning changed a bit.
SFFWRTCHT: Outliner or pantser?
SV: I never outline anything but my eyes.
SFFWRTCHT: As a pantser, do you find yourself rewriting/chucking sections a lot, or does it all flow from brain to medium?
SV: I’ve thrown away enough for two more books.
SFFWRTCHT: What was your path to publication like for this? Long and arduous? How’d you wind up with Crossed Genres?
SV: I lucked into Kay Holt offering to read a chapter for comment and then she and Bart Leib asked for the finished manuscript. Then Crossed Genres said they’d like to publish it, and I jumped at the offer.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like–specific block? Write ’til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
SV: I write after my family goes to sleep and on weekends. I go until I stall. Which means a few short nights but lot of all nighters.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?
SV: Always music and enough space to dance around as I write. Word or Pages. Nothing else.
SV: It doesn’t really. It’s just more short lived.
SFFWRTCHT: Have you had speculative fiction published in Spanish as well as English?
SV: Poetry; editorials; columns. No fiction yet.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
SV: Bad: Sequester yourself. Better: Trust your ear. Best: Honor every character.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you ever face writer’s block/slumps, and how do you deal with them?
SV: I have so little time to devote to it I can’t afford writer’s block.
SFFWRTCHT: The novel has garnered some amazing reviews. Where can we find Ink? And what other projects are you working on?
SV: It’s available at various online places. Find them at inknovel.com. One of my stories will be in the Crossed Genres anthology Menial: Skilled Labor in Science Fiction out in 2013, and I’m in the early stages of a chain of stories with monsters from Central American and Mexican folklore who cross the border with us.
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